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Director Gabe Polsky’s wife, Justine, was purging long-abandoned boxes from their West Hollywood home when she happened upon one that looked especially worthy of the dumpster. The box, sent to Polsky in 2014 by a fan of his hockey doc, Red Army, contained a trove of letters, contracts and photos related to Russia’s once-dominant Red Army hockey team. But the cache, which provided the genesis of his latest film, Red Penguins, illustrated a less-than-glorious chapter in the squad’s history. Instead of Olympic gold medal podium shots, the archive chronicled the bizarre period following the fall of the Soviet Union when the American owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins bought the team and launched the Russian Penguins. Hyper-capitalism met Soviet austerity, with strippers and live bears hitting the ice while homicidal Russian mobsters roamed the stands (and sometimes killed players). Adding to the strangeness, Disney and its former chairman Michael Eisner are part of Polsky’s narrative.
In fact, Red Penguins, which makes its world premiere in Toronto on Sept. 5, offers a slice of history that Eisner likely would rather forget. As Red Penguins recounts through archival footage and interviews conducted in Moscow and the U.S., Eisner wanted to parlay the Russian team into a Mighty Ducks sequel plotline. For his part, Eisner denies “having any relations with the Russian Penguins ice hockey team,” according to a statement in the film. But documents and pictures featured in Red Penguins would suggest some involvement.
Eisner isn’t the only seemingly out-of-place figure in a sports doc. Polsky tracked down a criminal on Interpol’s Most Wanted List and a former KGB prosecutor to fill in some of the story’s blanks.
“After the third or fourth interview, I knew this was going to be a really weird, special and unique story that no one has ever heard about,” says Polsky, whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1976. “We see a lot of stuff about Russia in the media, but we don’t really understand their psychology. I think that they are a lot like us and care about very similar things.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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